The Gold Dust Orphans are to Provincetown what Steppenwolf is to Chicago, The Groundlings are to LA, and the Comédie-Française is to Paris.
This article originally appeared in our December/January 2016 print issue.
In the gay summer village on the farthest edge of the world, where itinerant queens come and go as quickly as the ferry can cruise, the Gold Dust Orphans have remained and flourished with their utterly unique, politically incorrect, brilliantly brazen brand of “straight” plays and musical theater. And no, unlike the Steppenwolf, they are not performing Chekhov and Albee and Letts for moneyed subscribers, but they are still as irrevocably sewn into the artistic fabric of their chosen home as the country’s most notable theater troupes.
Led by writer/director/star Ryan Landry, the Gold Dust Orphans formed in 1995 and have since presented three or four shows a year, each built out of a patchwork of lovingly rendered camp iconography covering the gamut of twentieth- century queer culture. It comes as no surprise to see references to Joan Crawford, giallo horror, prewar vaudeville, and Jacqueline Susann all in the same Gold Dust Orphans musical number. Upon their twentieth anniversary, and as their uncompromising smash hit Thoroughly Muslim Millie makes the move from Provincetown to off-off-Broadway, I talked with the troupe about their long, storied career. Here is the oral history of the Gold Dust Orphans, one of the unmistakable gems of New England’s cultural landscape.
I spoke with Landry, the troupe’s leader and perennial grande dame, and its other founding members— Scott “Penny Champagne” Martino, Andre “Afrodite” Shoals, and Billy Hough—as well as some consistent collaborators as the Orphans wrapped the Provincetown run of Millie.
Ryan Landry: I grew up in a trailer park in Wallingford, Connecticut. There was always an old car being stripped of its copper filling up the small yard. And off to the side of that there was usually a deer hanging dead from a tree.
Billy Hough: When I was in kindergarten, I told my teacher I wanted to be Lon Chaney. I was smitten with show business at a very early age, and my parents were very supportive, but we moved to the Deep South when I was eight, and there was very little art outside the churches, and anything outré was considered blasphemous and in poor taste. I had to educate myself.
Andre Shoals: Growing up, my influences were my family. I spent every weekend at my grandparents’. Sometimes there would be up to 20 kids in my grandparents’ house, and we put on skits.
Scott Martino: My parents were divorced [when I was] young. Because it was a divided family, I had a huge diversity of influence as a kid. We were from the Little Italy of Hartford, so I was surrounded by crooners, and my mother took me to Broadway shows and encouraged me to perform. My dad really loved California rock and roll like Fleetwood Mac and The Doors. And then my Irish stepfather came along. There was always some new element when I was growing up, and I think that’s what keeps me so receptive to new stuff.
RL: My father had a terrible accident and was hit in the head by a crane at the junkyard where he worked. He was crippled and severely brain damaged by the time I started second grade. We had a pet rabbit that he often slept with. My mother worked the three-to-midnight shift in a weapons factory from as far back as I remember until just before she died.
Larry Coen (director): I came from a family where a life in the arts was not part of anyone’s vision for me. No one in my family was an artist. I was just a wiseass, a cynical kid, a class clown, and then I discovered theater. And a switch was thrown in my head, and to this day I cannot explain how this switch was thrown.
RL: I began performing when I was three years old. My father had a “talent” show that would be performed on Wednesday nights at a local union hall for all the other factory workers in the area. He would wear a dirty Minnie Pearl dress and a mop on his head to simulate a wig. There wasn’t much to his act.
We’re told that Ray Manzarek was out walking on the beach in Venice, California, when he met a drunk named Jim Morrison, who was carrying an Aldous Huxley book called The Doors of Perception. And the rest was rock and roll history. The origin of the Gold Dust Orphans was a similar concoction of pure chance, narcotics, and otherworldly influence.
BH: I went up to Boston and I was kind of my own punk thing, and a musician friend of mine knew of a production of Rocky Horror, and he knew they were looking for a Riff Raff. And that was it. That’s how I met Ryan and then everyone else. They had to go to battle for me.
AS: I remember seeing Ryan perform at The Pyramid Club in the East Village back in the ’90s, where I also used to perform. I remember him doing a number where he jumped through a hoop of fire and I thought, “This queen is major!”
RL: I used to do shows at The Pyramid Club for 15 dollars a pop. It was drink money and I needed it. Because I was never a “pretty” drag queen, I knew I had to have a gimmick. I began to hang a flaming Hula-Hoop from the ceiling and jump through it dressed as The Flying Nun. It got attention. I began meeting other like-minded freaks who would do anything for a laugh. We realized we liked each other. And we’ve been friends ever since.
BH: Ryan got very, very sick at the end of Rocky Horror. We thought he was going to die. And he kept saying, “Billy, Billy, all I want to do is do the Christmas play!” And we would say, “Of course, Ryan, of course, we’ll do your Christmas play.” When someone’s dying, you say, “Of course, of course.” And we definitely had no time to put on the Christmas play. It was already Thanksgiving. And of course, Ryan made a miraculous recovery, and then I got a phone call saying we would go into rehearsals for a Christmas play that night. But Ryan’s life is just full of these legitimate brushes with death: motorcycle accidents, getting stranded in Europe with no form of communication. It’s always something, but that’s just how he is.
AS: Ryan hit me up and said that he was mounting How Mrs. Grinchly Swiped Christmas and asked if I would be a part. Naturally, I said, “Hellz yeah.”
BH: Afro was remarkable. Ryan knew him from New York, I think. Afro was big, Afro was black; a beautiful boy, and a beautiful girl. Afro gave us a level of credibility right out of the gate because he was so polished at the beginning of this.
SM: I was starting to come up with the look of the show, and Ryan had written Mrs. Grinchly, and rehearsals were starting, and we had to come up with a name for this thing we had just started.
BH: I brought the cocaine. Scott brought this Stevie Nicks box set, and Afrodite brought two bottles of champagne, and we were celebrating Ryan getting out of the hospital [and] the fact that we were gonna write, direct, and produce a fucking play in the next five weeks.
RL: We were all sitting around high and listening to Fleetwood Mac. Because we were all certified punks at the time, we thought this was a very “edgy” thing to do.
SM: We are all heavily influenced by Stevie Nicks.
BH: I appreciate Stevie Nicks, but she would not make my top 20. The others would disagree.
RL: We had begun throwing around names for the theater company that we had already planned to form when Stevie started singing “Gold Dust Woman.”
BH: Ryan always liked the idea of Orphans, and the Island of Misfit Toys. I think it was Armistead Maupin who said, “Gay people get to make their own family.” Ryan didn’t feel anything from his family, and he went out and created a family of people, and many of them were kids who had felt shunned by their families.
RL: I think the “Orphans” part of the name came when we realized that we would never be embraced by the mainstream. That we were pretty much on our own. And that was just fine and dandy with us.
The early years were a brutal cycle of promotion, performance, and progression. Certain performers came and went, but the central focus of the Orphans remained the same.
RL: I had just seen one too many bad shows in Boston. I knew that we could do better, that we would be smarter, funnier, and more politically aware than all of these people doing plays and musicals about drippy, yuppie gays coming out to their parents. It was boring and so we were bored. We wanted danger, not constant affirmation that gay was “OK.” We weren’t interested in being “OK.” “OK” was dull and ineffectual. We wanted to be fearless.
SM: Everyone who showed up in the early days was just there through word of mouth. Can you imagine if we had had Facebook? We had to send stuff through the mail. But it worked. It wasn’t easy, but we found an audience, and the audience became a following.
BH: In the early days, the Boston Globe would not have written about us if we had all died in a fiery car crash.
RL: The initial reactions were shock, awe, and laughter. The critics, however, were totally insulted. I remember a line I wrote that I am still quite proud of: “All critics are pigs. Some shit in a pen, others through one.”
LC: And now look where we are.
Landry is a controversial figure in Provincetown, almost as notable for his perceived volatility as he is for his stage work. Though the Orphans will be honest about Landry’s backstage behavior, he commands the utmost loyalty and respect from his collaborators.
Olive Another (actor): I first saw the Gold Dust Orphans when I was 21. The show that summer was Dragula. I met Ryan because I used to buy ecstasy from him.
Robin Banks (actor): Newcomers are still overwhelmed and scared, but they have no idea what it used to be like! [Landry] was crazy at times. A total loose cannon. You never knew who or what you were going to get from rehearsal to rehearsal or show to show. If you ask me, it just added to the excitement of it all.
BH: With Ryan, the really rough stories happened because he had leveraged his entire life! Ryan would put the rent money up into these shows, so if these shows didn’t work, they would’ve been ruined. It wasn’t just artistically life and death. It was financially life and death. There was no money. It was all about the work.
LC: Ryan yelled at me in rehearsal all the time: “You’re not funny. Stop trying to be funny. You need to talk faster. You need to keep up the pace. Be louder.” But what people should know is that he’s only loud because he cares. Passion like Ryan’s is either too hot to handle or totally contagious.
OA: One of the best nights was at Showgirls [Landry’s weekly Provincetown talent show] when Ryan was dressed in a big vagina costume [and] introduced the next act, and they turned out to be really lousy. Ryan said into the mic, “Might be time to bring out the next act.” They responded with, “Might be time to get some talent.” Ryan chased them off the stage, dressed as a vagina, and pummeled them offstage and chased them off the property. It was gorgeous!
SM: All I can say about Ryan Landry is that he’s a mad genius.
This year, Landry was awarded the Elliot Norton Prize for Sustained Excellence in recognition of these decades of stage work. What does this mean for the Orphans? What’s next?
LC: Right now we’re doing Thoroughly Muslim Millie. It’s an original story, and it is a musical that deals with politics, prejudice, and religious-based feelings of superiority. It’s a new and complex Ryan Landry. This is one of the things I love about Ryan. It’s not a repetition. There’s a trajectory and an overall expansion each time we do one of these things.
RL: There will be no stepping away. The Orphans will continue to lead the way. In all things comedic, anyway. You must understand that the Orphans are my life and my soul, and I really haven’t much interest in anything else. They now span several generations, and we are currently training the grandchildren for their first experience on the Orphans stage. The shows are really just an extension of family. I have always been surrounded by freaks and fools who love me. I hope to always be.